Yiyun Li on the Life-Changing Quality of Literature

The author of Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life on books that make the world seem larger.

Yiyun Li

Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life is a powerful memoir about the life-changing quality literature can provide in dark times. Growing up in China and living in a state overcrowded both physically and psychologically, Yiyun Li read to carve out a space where there was none: the moment one opens a book, one makes a world larger than what confines one. Here, you’ll find a selection of titles mentioned in Dear Friend, and a quick line about why each one is important to Li.

Yiyun Li

  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
    • “A real person, open-ended, can only be approached as a hypothesis. A character in fiction is demanded to be accountable. Some characters are more willing to offer a context. The young women in Jane Austen’s novels, for instance, seek happiness and suffer when happiness is made unavailable, by situation, chance, or folly.”

Yiyun Li

  • The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
    • The Death of the Heart is not only a study of selfishness, but also a study of the struggle to escape suffering. To whom the damage is done no one wants to ask. This is the question that unsettles me more: Is suffering selfish?”

Yiyun Li

  • A Life in Letters by Anton Chekhov
    • “When Katherine Mansfield claimed in her journal that she loved Chekhov so much she wanted to adopt a Russian baby and name him Anton, her emotional transparency embarrassed me. I felt the urge to laugh because I was terrified to recognize even a residue of myself in her. It occurred to me much later that she was by then dying of tuberculosis, the same disease that led Chekhov to an early death. Our admiration and scrutiny of another person reflect what we love and hate to see in ourselves.”

Yiyun Li

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  • Ways of Escape: An Autobiography by Graham Greene
    • “Greene is the only writer I have read who acknowledges that he not only enjoys melodramas, but also wants to write them. Me, too! I wrote in the margin. It’s the only time I have admitted my ambition, albeit to a dead man.”

Yiyun Li

  • Life’s Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy
    • “If Hardy intends for readers to feel repelled by her vulgarity, dishonesty, and coldness, he also grants her unmistakable vitality. There is no ambivalence but her strong desire to make something out of a life that doesn’t offer much.”

Yiyun Li

  • Either/Or: A Fragment of Life by Soren Kierkegaard
    • “I was reading Kierkegaard while waiting to pick up my children from school. I wished I could wave some mother out of her idling vehicle and show her the passage. Reading, however, is a kind of private freedom: out of time, out of place.”

Yiyun Li

  • All Will Be Well by John McGahern
    • “No one’s vulnerability is more devastating than the next person’s, no one’s joy more deserving. What happens to McGahern is only life, which happens to us all.”

Yiyun Li

  • Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson
    • “‘I always thought that the gifts he gave were a way of keeping people away . . . of focusing their attention on the persona he had created out of the raw materials of his best traits,’ McPherson wrote about Pancake.”

Yiyun Li

  • Strong Opinions by Vladimir Nabokov
    • “I feel a tinge of guilt when I imagine Nabokov’s woe. Like all intimacies, the intimacy between one and one’s mother tongue can demand more than one is willing to give, or what one is capable of giving. If I allow myself to be honest, I would borrow from Nabokov for a stronger and stranger statement. My private salvation, which cannot and should not be anybody’s concern, is that I disowned my native language.”

Yiyun Li

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
    • “For years Tolstoy ended his journal each day with three letters, initials for the Russian if I live. Every month he began with the note nearer to death. How did I forget to start each and every page of my journal with the reminder that nothing matters?”

Yiyun Li

  • Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
    • “What Turgenev bemoaned throughout his youth and middle age—that life had passed without having begun—was precisely what I had needed to hear when I first encountered him in the school library. All children require a system to stop being children.”

Yiyun Li

  • The Gentle Barbarian: The Work and Life of Turgenev by V.S. Pritchett
    • “Of course writing is essential for a writer, and being read, too—halfheartedly I repeat his conviction to others and myself. But the truth is I did not connect those necessities to a writer’s life until I read Pritchett’s letter. Writing is an option, so is not writing; being read is a possibility, so is not being read.”

Yiyun Li

  • Complete Poems by Marianne Moore
    • “To hear Moore say that she’s prone to excess is not unlike reading young Turgenev’s lament over being an old man before his time. Such absoluteness could be mistaken for affectation, but there are people who can survive only by going to the extreme.”

Yiyun Li

  • Letters to Monica by Philip Larkin
    • “Larkin’s continuous self-accusation and his continuous effort to excuse himself lead me to think he lived an emotionally honest life and bore the pains well.”

Featured image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock.com

Author Photo: © Phillippe Matsas

YIYUN LI is the author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants. A native of Beijing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the recipient of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Guardian First Book Award. In 2007, Granta named her one of the best American novelists under thirty-five. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among others. She teaches writing at the University of California, Davis, and lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their two sons.

About YIYUN LI

Yiyun Li

YIYUN LI is the author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants. A native of Beijing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the recipient of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Guardian First Book Award. In 2007, Granta named her one of the best American novelists under thirty-five. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among others. She teaches writing at the University of California, Davis, and lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their two sons.

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